After the Buddha himself, the most revered and universally popular figure in Buddhism is Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Since his appearance in about the 1th century BCE this beloved bodhisattva has been worshiped with almost unparalleled fervor by the followers of all schools of Buddhism.
Though accessible through prayer and supplication to anyone anywhere, Avalokiteśvara was believed to abide on a mountain in a remote part of India where, from its lofty and cloud-decked heights, he could as his name suggests, 'look out upon' the world with compassion. This mountain was called Potala or sometimes Potalaka.
Pilgrimage to Potala began in about the 1th century CE although records are very scant. Both of the great Tamil Buddhist epics, the Maṇimegala and the Cilappatikanam mention pilgrims going to Mount Potala. The Mahāyānist poet and philosopher Candragomin went there by ship and is said to have spent his last years on the mountain. He wrote his most famous work, the Śisyaleaka, while there and gave it to some merchants to pass to his disciples in northern India. When the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang was in Nalanda in the 7th century he met a brahmin who had made a vow to worship a statue of Avalokiteśvara which was on the top of Potala, a vow he had been able to fulfill. This statue was believed to be the bodhisattva's exact likeness. Later, Hiuen Tsiang travelled through south India and although he was unable to visit Potala himself he left this description of it based on what others had told him. 'To the east of the Malaya Mountains is Mount Potala. The passes on the mountain are very dangerous, its sides are precipitous and its valleys rugged. On the top of the mountain is a lake, its waters as clear as a mirror. From a grotto preceeds a great river which encircles the mountain twenty times as it flows down to the southern sea. By the side of the lake is a rock palace of the gods. Here Avalokiteśhvara in coming and going takes his abode. Those who strongly desire to see him disregarding their lives and fording the streams, climb the mountain forgetful of its difficulties and dangers. Of those who make the attempt there are very few who reach the summit. But even if those who dwell below the mountain earnestly prey to behold the bodhisattva, he appears to them sometimes as Isvara, sometimes in the form of a yogi, and addresses them with benevolent words and then they obtain their wishes according to their desires.' This description is clearly a blend of fact and fiction, something about Potala that increased as time went by. Gradually the sacred mountain came to be seen as a kind of magical fairy land, a paradise where rare medical herbs and exquisite flowers grew, where mythological animals frolicked and where those blessed enough to be reborn in Avalokiteśhvara's presence abided in bliss.
Of course to worship Avalokiteśhvara was the main reason to go there but some went for quite different reasons. For example the lay man Santivarman, whose dates are difficult to determine, made three trips to Potala and although the account of his journeys is filled with miracles, it seems to be based on fact. His first journey was purely for worshipping Avalokiteśvara and interestingly he is said to have made his way with the help of a guide book. Another visit was made at the request of the monks at Vārāṇasī who wanted him to ask Avalokiteśvara about difficulties in a particular text. On another occasion he was sent by King Subhasāra to beseech the bodhisattva to free his realm from a plague.
Pilgrimage to Potala, probably never very extensive, petered out long before Buddhism's disappearance in India. Avalokiteśvara's ability to appear anywhere meant that undertaking the long dangerous journey to Potala was simply unnecessary. The Tibetan teacher Man-luns-po claims to have gone to Mount Potala in the 14th century and the account of his journey is detailed enough to suggest that he really did. If this is correct, he must be the last pilgrim we know of to have visited the sacred mountain.
The origins of the name Potala are obscure. It is probably a Sanskritization of the Tamil potiy + il, meaning 'the place of Buddhists,' potiy being the Tamil of bodhi. In ancient times potiyil was the common Tamil word for a Buddhist temple or shrine. Although Potala's whereabouts is almost completely unknown to contemporary Buddhists, the mountain has never actually been 'lost.' Rather, it seems that for at least the last thousand years Buddhists have not bothered about its location. Called Potikai today, the sacred mountain is situated on the border between the south Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and at 2726 meters is the highest peak in the Tinnevelly Range.
Since the 10th century Chinese Buddhists have come to believe that Mount Potala is in their own country. A rocky island now called Putuo Shan off the coast of Zhejiang Province is popularly believed to be the real Potala and is now considered one of the four sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism. Since the 15th century the Dalai Lamas of Tibet have been looked upon as incarnations of Avalokiteśhvara and appropriately enough, their residence, called the Potala Palace, is on a steep-sided hill.